Sunday, July 14, 2013

Samson François

In recent years, record companies have been delving into their catalogues and issuing comprehensive editions of their artists’ recordings. Most extravagant among some of these releases has been Sony Music’s 144 CD’s Arthur Rubinstein Complete Album Collection (one day I will break my piggy bank to buy this). On a smaller scale, EMI have been releasing boxed sets of CD’s from their wonderful catalogue of great instrumentalists – Alfred Cortot, Yehudi Menuhin, Jacqueline du Pre, to name just a few. Recently a friend gave me a set of 8 CD’s, also from EMI, titled Les introuvables de Samson François. Listening to these CD’s - a real treasure trove of great performances - the last few weeks has given me immense pleasure, and I have been completely bowed over by Mr. François’ pianism and artistry.

Although much loved in his native France, Samson François (1924 – 1970) never really became a household word among music lovers in Germany, England, or North America. Before listening to this set of recordings, I had only known his legendary recording of the two Ravel concerti as well as the composer’s Gaspard de la nuit. I don’t know why I never bothered to look into his playing of works by other composers.

This present set of recordings presents a generous helping from the pianist’s discography, and gives music lovers a real taste of the playing of Samson François – concerti of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Prokofiev, and solo works of Prokofiev, Hindemith, Schumann, Bach, Frank, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bartok, and Fauré, as well as chamber works of Fauré and Frank. A pleasant surprise is part of a CD devoted to François’ own compositions. I believe that EMI has issued another set of recordings of the pianist’s playing of Chopin.

I have heard it said that today’s piano playing is either anonymous or idiosyncratic. Samson François’ playing, original as they were, fits into neither of these descriptions. I would have to say that the playing really is in a class of its own. In the concerto recordings, for example, I was particularly moved by his playing of the two Chopin concerti. I was surprised to learn that the pianist had recorded Prokofiev’s 3rd as well as 5th concerti. In his performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto, François brought out the lyricism of the music, without sacrificing any of its excitement. In the first movement, he took the initial scale runs at a tempo slower than many of today’s young keyboard titans, but allowed the music to gradually build to a climax. I would not want to live without Sviatoslav Richter’s scintillating account of the composer’s 5th piano concerto, but François’ playing of this relatively neglected work is certainly on the same level, and just as exciting, as that of the great Soviet pianist. And I can think of no greater compliment than to say that François’ performances of the composer’s 7th piano sonata, as well as the steely Toccata, Op. 11, could stand alongside performances by Vladimir Horowitz or Glenn Gould.

Perhaps Mr. François’ affinity for Prokofiev also rubbed off in his efforts as a composer. For me, it was interesting to hear in François’ own compositions, including a piano concerto, showing more than a passing influence from the Soviet composer.

This wonderful set of CD’s also contains a generous helping of the works of Robert Schumann, including an impregnable account of the rarely played, finger-breaking Toccata, Op. 7. The pianist’s performance of Papillons, Étude symphoniques, Carnaval, and Kinderszenen, shows him to have been a great Schumann player. I was particularly taken with conveying the spirit of the dance in Papillons as well as in parts of Carnaval. The word “ardent” keeps coming to mind when hearing François’ playing of Schumann.

Not surprisingly, Samson François’ playing of the chamber and solo works of Frank and Fauré were impeccably done, “to the manor born”, so to speak. His playing of Fauré had all the flexibility and subtlety that the works call for, qualities that elude many great musicians. His playing of Mendelssohn’s Andante and rondo capriccioso, as well as three of the Songs Without Words, had all of the elfin lightness that the works require. In two of Mozart’s solo piano works - Variations on “Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman” and the Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 282 - the playing was both stylish and beautiful. Unlike many pianists of his generation, François’ was not afraid to employ a large palate of colours in his playing of the composer’s music.

For me, the highlight of the entire set, the real find, had to be François’ performance of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor. The playing here was, for lack of a better description, simply stunning; extremely virtuosic, but without sacrificing the beauty of the sound. The pianist simply squeezed every ounce of expressiveness out of this hyper-emotional music, but remaining within the realm of good taste. In fact, what struck me listening in to all these recordings was how inspired and expressive the playing was. I find in these studio recordings the same excitement and spontaneity one usually only hears in live performances.

EMI has done a real service here in issuing these incredible recordings. Samson François was certainly not an “objective” pianist, pianists (mostly from the 20th century) who would give no more and no less of what the composer had written. No, like his fellow countryman, Alfred Cortot, Samson François was an artist who was not afraid to read between and beyond the printed notes to discover and rediscover new meanings in the music.

In an age when the image (and often the wardrobe) of the musician looms larger than the message he or she has to deliver, the playing of Samson François reminds us of an age when being an artist, a musician, was not a “career” (a word that seems incongruous with art and music) but a calling.